"The White Album" synthesizes Didion's experiences as a reporter during the later Sixties and, in so doing, appraises the mental health of the country and of the author during those white-knuckle years. This selection is from a chapter on the San Francisco State College shut down, during which she describes the delusional, giddy, opportunistic atmosphere that the turmoil engendered. To hear Didion describe the scene, it sounds like something lifted from Moliere or Kafka rather than the daily news. This style of reporting and the kind of subjects reported echoes through the essay, which marks the Sixties at its pressure points, including the Bobby Kennedy assassination and the Sharon Tate murders. Sometime disquietingly, Didion tends to cover those horrific events with the same ironic distance that she employs in the following paragraph.
The place simply never seemed serious. The headlines were dark that first day, the college had been closed "indefinitely," both Ronald Reagan and Jesse Unruh were threatening reprisals; still, the climate inside the Administration Building was that of a musical comedy about college life. "No chance we'll be open tomorrow," secretaries informed callers. "Go skiing, have a good time." Striking black militants dropped in to chat with the deans; striking white radicals exchanged gossip in the corridors. "No interviews, no press," announced a student strike leader who happened into a dean's office where I was sitting; in the next moment he was piqued because no one had told him that a Huntley-Brinkley camera crew was on campus. "We can still plug into that," the dean said soothingly. Everyone seemed joined in a rather festive camaraderie, a shared jargon, a sense of moment; the future was no longer arduous and indefinite but immediate and programmatic, aglow with the prospect of problems to be "addressed," plans to be "implemented." It was agreed all around that the confrontations could be "a very healthy development," that maybe it took a shutdown "to get something done." The mood, like the architecture, was 1948 functional, a model of pragmatic optimism. [pp. 38-39]
The San Francisco State College incident raises the same question as most of the episodes in the book: is any person or topic safe from Didion's scorn?
Had the deans and students leaders acted differently, could she have summoned sympathy, or would she have found some new angle of derision?
How does the SFSC revolution fit into her concept of "narrative"? Where does that narrative chiefly play—on TV, in the deans' closed quarters, or on Didion's own page?
Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.
Last modified 6 February 2005